Clarity in Packaged Food Labels: A Policy Paper

Food allergies are on the rise in the US, with a reaction sending someone to the emergency room every 3 minutes. Food allergies are triggered by autoimmune reactions to certain proteins within foods. Some reactions are mild while others are more severe and can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis. Symptoms of anaphylaxis include breathing difficulties, hives, a fast heartbeat, wheezing, and confusion. Left untreated, these symptoms can quickly become fatal. To avoid such reactions, food allergic individuals rely on reading the ingredients on labels. However, accurate food labeling has only existed since the beginning of the 20th century with the help of muckrakers and journalists who exposed corruption and injustices, detailing the hazardous and unsanitary conditions of the food industry. One such muckraker, Upton Sinclair, vividly described “how diseased, rotten, and contaminated meat products were processed, doctored by chemicals, and mislabeled for sale to the public” in his novel, The Jungle, ultimately contributing to the passage of the Food and Drug Act by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. The goal of this act was to regulate the usage of food additives and prohibit misleading labels, yet the fight for more clarity in labeling continues over a hundred years later. There are 32 million Americans currently living with food allergies, and there has been a 377% increase in treatment of diagnosed anaphylactic reactions from 2007-2016, demonstrating that this is a rapidly growing problem that requires protection from policy.

A solution adopted by Congress to address this growing issue was the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Act of 2004 (FALCPA) which was an amendment to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act that required the label to declare the presence of a major food allergen. FALCPA identified 8 major food allergens that must be explicitly labeled, being eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, milk, fish, Crustacean shellfish, wheat, and soybeans. This policy originated in Congress and was sponsored by Senator Jeff Sessions [R-Al] and Representative Nita M. Lowey [D-NY-18]. FALCPA is Title II of the Minor Use and Minor Species Animal Health Act of 2003, with the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and House Energy and Commerce committee. Sessions was a part of both committees while Lowey was a part of the House committee. Sessions received 21 cosponsors in the Senate while Lowey received 57 cosponsors in the House as they worked to amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with regards to animal safety and other purposes, including clearer labeling of major food allergens. Sessions was the most important in pushing the legislation through both chambers, with Lowey providing crucial support in the House of Representatives. Another political advocate for the passage of this legislation was Senator Jeff Bingman [D-NM], an original cosponsor who also served on both committees with Sessions. In regards to the success of the policy, Sessions was the most crucial, then Lowey, then Bingman. Given that this amendment was a widely supported bipartisan effort, it was well received and passed by President Bush.

The purpose of Congress passing this legislation was to improve the lives of food allergic individuals by making it easier for these people to identify and avoid foods that contain major allergens. The importance of this act was demonstrated more than ever when the FDA took a random sampling of packaged foods around Michigan and Wisconsin in 1999 and found that 25% of these foods failed to disclose that the food contained peanuts or eggs on the labels, although the foods did contain these allergens. Aiming to stop irresponsible and preventable exposures and potentially lethal reactions, Congress passed FALCPA which requires food manufacturers to label products containing an ingredient or protein from one of the 8 major food allergens in one of two ways. “The first option for food manufacturers is to include the name of the food source in parenthesis following the common or usual name of the major food allergen in the list of ingredients in instances when the name of the food source of the major allergen does not appear elsewhere in the ingredient statement”. For example, “Ingredients: Enriched flour (wheat flour, malted barley, niacin, reduced iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), sugar...” “The second option is to place the word "Contains" followed by the name of the food source from which the major food allergen is derived, immediately after or adjacent to the list of ingredients, in type size that is no smaller than the type size used for the list of ingredients”. For example, “Contains: Egg and Soy” after the main ingredient list. Additionally, FALCPA applies to both imported and domestic foods that are subject to FDA regulations to ensure the safety of food allergic individuals, regardless of where the food comes from.

FALCPA is widely regarded as a very successful policy that significantly improved the lives of millions of Americans by making it easier to identify major allergens by requiring companies to label the 8 major allergens on food packages. The food allergy community, including one of the most prominent groups in the food allergy community, Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), was extremely grateful for the passage of this legislation, but there was still more work to be done. While the 8 major food allergens represent 90% of food in the US, there was the notable exception of sesame. Sesame is the 9th most common allergen but was not required to be listed as an allergen under FALCPA. However, under the Food Allergy Safety, Treatment, Education, and Research Act of 2021 (FASTER), sesame was added to the list of major allergens and is now required to be clearly labeled on packaged foods. Approved unanimously in the senate and passed by an “overwhelming bipartisan majority” in the House of Representatives, this act finally acknowledged the 1.5 million Americans living with a sesame allergy that had been previously ignored in FALCPA. The passing of FASTER marked the first time since FALCPA that food allergen labeling had been expanded to protect more people from preventable, life-threatening reactions.

While the passage of FALCPA and FASTER was a step in the right direction towards informing people about what allergens are in their food, ambiguous language such as ‘may contain...’ and ‘manufactured in a facility that also processes...” represents a lack of standardized labeling. Food companies include these precautionary labels to warn consumers of potential cross-contact or cross-contamination within a product, but no law or policy regulates this often confusing language. “May contain”, “manufactured in a facility that also processes”, and “manufactured on shared equipment” all have vastly different meanings with various potential to cause an allergic reaction. The responsibility unfairly falls on consumers to make an important, stressful decision regarding their own health and wellbeing based on an ambiguous statement. These problems could be avoided with the passage of a policy that reduces the number of confusing precautionary statements to just one: “may contain”. Overall, the food allergic community has benefitted from recent legislation to protect their safety, but there is still more that can and needs to be done in Congress to help consumers decide which foods to explicitly avoid in order to protect the quality of life for millions of Americans living with food allergies.

Works Cited

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